People set all kinds of goals. To visit Paris and see the Eiffel Tower, to run a marathon in less than four hours, to swim with dolphins, to earn a million dollars, to be your own boss, to own a mansion, to find true love — the list, mostly mundane and predictable, is endless.
We live in an age where goals are king. Our societies tell us that setting and achieving them is not just the only way to lead a fulfilling life, and thus the only way to be truly happy, but that we also need to enjoy the process in between — the "journey," they call it.
It's a pervasive phenomenon and it affects how we feel about the success of ourselves and others (or lack thereof), and about how we approach life itself. "Work Hard, Dream Big," as Nike says. "Just Do It."
Bob Beamon's life goal was to become the Olympic long jump champion. He was born into a poor family in Queens, New York, but sought refuge from his abusive father at his grandmother's house before he was a teenager. He excelled at high school athletics and gained a scholarship at the University of Texas, where he laid down plans to achieve his ultimate goal.
The opportunity came at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Beamon had demolished almost everybody in his path to glory, having won 22 of the 23 events he had participated in before the games. He was the favorite not just to win, but to win big. Only things didn't quite go according to plan, at least not at first.
During the qualifying rounds, Beamon felt off and began to panic. He overshot his run-ups and fouled on his first two attempts. With a shot at Olympic gold hanging by a thread, he played it so safe in his final jump that he leaped from nearly two feet behind the board. Alas, he still managed to qualify for the finals.
The next day, Beamon — or, as he would soon be known, "the man who could fly" — produced what would later be called the "leap of the century." On his first attempt, he tore down the track before leaping high and far. So far, in fact, that officials had to spend 45 minutes searching for tape long enough to accurately measure it.
Beamon had jumped 29 ft. 2.5 in., more than two feet further than anybody else in history. His Olympic record still stands today.
But what happened after that should be a message to all of us. A week after the event, he was taking sociology classes for a master's degree and shortly thereafter abandoned athletics altogether. In 2008, he recalled the joy and celebration of his feat lasting mere minutes. "When I got to the medal stand, I said, 'what am I gonna do? I've reach one stage, and so what is the next peak experience in my life?'"
Whether you're Bob Beamon or Bob next door, it's hard not to wonder whether major life goals are nothing but a source of frustration. Either suffer the indignity, guilt and shame of failure, or feel the empty, desolate anti-climax of success.
Of course, that's not to say we should all sit around on the couch picking cheetos dust out of our belly buttons all day, nor should we fail to aspire to greatness like Beamon did. But, now more than ever – when we're simultaneously both hyper-aware of own perceived failings (thanks, social media!) and encouraged to set and achieve goals more rigorously than ever before – it's important to ask the question: does setting life goals work and, even if it does, is it worth it?
Why Do I Feel Like a Failure Even When I'm a Success?
The problem with goal pursuit is that you become shackled to your own motivations. You spend far more time chasing the goal than you do enjoying the success that comes with achieving it.
Human behavior expert Oliver Burkeman explained it best to The Guardian, quoting cartoonist Scott Adams's book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:
When you approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved, you exist “in a state of near-continuous failure”. Almost all the time, by definition, you’re not at the place you’ve defined as embodying accomplishment or success. And should you get there, you’ll find you’ve lost the very thing that gave you a sense of purpose – so you’ll formulate a new goal and start again.
“We know goal-setting is a very powerful motivating force,” Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times. “Whether it’s a runner who wants to set a certain time or a salesperson aiming for a number of sales, goals give us meaning, purpose and guidance.”
But, Professor Schweitzer, who co-wrote a paper in 2009 titled “Goals Gone Wild,” warned that things have gotten out of hand. “The proponents of goals focused on the benefits of the goals, not the harm, and too many businesses went too far, saying 'Here’s what we want you to accomplish," and implicitly saying, "We don’t care how you got there.’”
The paper states that "the harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged." Chiefly, that goal setting can actually hinder performance, shifts focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm relationships, propagate risky and unethical behaviors, and reduce intrinsic motivation.
Similarly, in his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time And Money, clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels also argues that ambitious goal setting is often ineffective, citing a study that shows when individuals repeatedly fail to reach goals, their performance declines.
One theory as to why goal setting doesn't work effectively lies in neuroscience. Recent research shows the brain works in a rather protective way, resistant to any major changes. Any goals that require substantial behavioral change, or thinking-pattern change, your brain will revert to autopilot and resist them.
So, What Should I Do Instead?
Well, there are two options. Adam Galinsky, co-author of "Goals Gone Wild," argues that "goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation."
He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things — instead, he stresses the need to make sure the goal is appropriate and to keep monitoring it to determine, "Is this goal too specific? Is this goal too stressful? Is it pushing many people beyond the normal bounds of what they should be doing?" If so, he says, then you need to rethink that goal.
However Adams (the cartoonist who wrote the How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big book mentioned earlier) has an altogether different alternative: systems. Systems stand in contrast to goals in that a system is "something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run." A writer setting out to write 500 words a day is using a system, so is a person taking up some kind of daily exercise – rather than setting a goal, like being able to run a marathon in four hours or run a mile in five minutes.
Another popular system online is called “No Zero Days”: the idea behind it being to doing something, no matter how tiny or how little effort needed, towards a larger project every single day.
While there probably won't be as many spine-tingling moments of success, what you will get is a more predictable supply of nice, happy moments. While goal people usually "languish in a state of non-accomplishment," Adams says, systems people “succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do”.
Systems allow us to focus on what we can control, rather than what we can't. Stick to your system and you'll improve the chances of success finding you, live the #goals life and you could end up feeling like a failure even when you're a success.
Now read about how your smartphone is ruining your mental health.